In Russia, protests and crackdown bring Belarus to mind

Russia's response to anti-government protests sparked by the jailing of opposition figure Alexei Navalny has been fast and severe
Russia's response to anti-government protests sparked by the jailing of opposition figure Alexei Navalny has been fast and severe Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV AFP/File
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Moscow (AFP)

As Russian riot police chased protesters across Moscow last weekend, a gaggle of demonstrators took shelter in a gleaming department store in the city centre.

"Where do we go now?" wondered one young man, as police carried out a series of arrests outside.

"I don't know," another one replied, "look at what the command centre is saying."

The "command centre" was the headquarters of opposition politician and chief Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, whose arrest and jailing set off a wave of anti-government demonstrations in recent weeks.

During protests in Moscow, Navalny's team was coordinating demonstrations in real-time on social media and sending last-minute instructions to protesters, especially on the Telegram encrypted messenger app very popular in Russia.

For many in Russia, the tactic brought to mind methods used by the opposition in neighbouring Belarus, where a Telegram channel with 1.5 million subscribers has become the main communications hub during nearly six months of protests over a disputed election.

Russia's response to the demonstrations -- a fast and severe crackdown -- also has echoes of events next door, where President Alexander Lukashenko has kept his grip on power despite tens of thousands taking to the streets.

The Telegram channel set up by Navalny's Moscow aides -- "teamnavalny_mos" -- is in many ways similar to NEXTA, a channel based in Poland that coordinates the opposition protests in Belarus.

Like NEXTA, it makes calls for demonstrations, releases statements by Navalny and his team and coordinates protesters' movements on the ground.

- 'The Russian NEXTA' -

After police closed off the centre of Moscow last Sunday in an unprecedented lockdown, the channel sent updated information about where to rally next.

"After January 23, everyone wrote: 'We need a Russian NEXTA,'" said Leonid Volkov, the head of Navalny's regional network, referring to the first pro-Navalny protest last month.

"We will create a Russian NEXTA," said Volkov -- who, like Lukashenko's main opponent Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, lives in exile in Lithuania's capital Vilnius.

The Kremlin has rejected parallels between street protests in Russia and Belarus, with Putin's spokesman saying the only thing the two situations have in common is that both countries are facing "rabble rousers and unauthorised protests".

In Belarus, where the protests erupted after Lukashenko claimed a landslide election win over Tikhanovskaya in August, protests have been larger and more sustained.

The crackdown was also more intense, with police using rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon against demonstrators from the start.

Several people died in the initial unrest, thousands were arrested and detainees emerged from holding centres with horrifying accounts of torture and humiliation.

Russia's response to the pro-Navalny protests was initially more restrained, with police picking off protesters a few at a time during demonstrations and avoiding full-scale confrontations.

Pressure mounted as the protests continued, however, and when hundreds of Navalny supporters took to the streets of Moscow on Tuesday to protest his jailing, the response was harsh.

Riot police chased the mainly young protesters through the streets and were seen beating groups of young demonstrators with batons and snatching random passers-by off the streets.

An independent monitoring group says at least 10,000 people have been detained across the country since the start of the rallies. Moscow jails are reported to have run out of space and many protesters were sent to a detention centre for migrants outside the capital.

- 'Flashbacks to Belarus' -

Activists in Russia said they were concerned by the "unprecedented escalation of baseless violence", in a joint statement put out by leading rights group Memorial.

"Never in the history of modern Russia has there been such a number of beaten, detained and arrested people," they said.

"Flashbacks to Belarus," said MBKh Media, a website founded by exiled Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, noting that like in Belarus's capital Minsk, Moscow authorities closed down central metro stations during protests and police chased demonstrators across courtyards.

"If 10 percent of the population take to the streets in Moscow (like in Minsk), there will be both shooting and water cannon, too," it said.

Like in Belarus where several prominent opposition figures were jailed ahead of last year's election, the Russian courts have also ramped up pressure on critics.

Navalny on Tuesday was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison on old embezzlement charges -- his first lengthy jail term -- while his brother and key aides have been placed under house arrest.

Moscow-based political analyst Konstantin Kalachev said Russian authorities learned a lesson from the unrest in Belarus.

"Law enforcement's main conclusion is: if you are firm and consistent, you can crush any protest," Kalachev said.